Why is Education Week Sensationalizing Student Trauma During this Pandemic? (Part I)

Will Schools Re-Open Without Pathologizing their Students' Emotional Needs?


   As a school psychologist and Past-President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), the social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health reactions and needs of all children and adolescents (and their parents and families) during this pandemic is of great concern.

   But as I continue to virtually consult with my school districts and colleagues around the country, and as I lead three weekly MasterClass PLCs—helping administrators, teachers, and related service professionals plan for the post-pandemic re-opening of our schools. . .

. . . I consistently reassert the science-to-practice decision-making processes advocated by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.

   And yet, the popular education press—whether consciously or not—has not always practiced objective, data-based reporting especially when related to the social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health status of our nation’s students. 

The Continuum of Unobjective Reporting

   When faulty, unobjective reporting occurs (and note, it does not always happen), it occurs along a “continuum of culpability.”

   At one end of the continuum, some educational publications have (perhaps, inadvertently) practiced “sloppy writing.” This results in the appearance that the publication supports one or more specific social-emotional learning frameworks—including some that have never been validated or are not needed for the conditions described.

   For example, a promotional description of an Education Dive article published on May 15, summarizing a National Education Poll of 1,936 members about their top concerns as schools open post-pandemic, stated:

“As some schools reopen and others weigh the option, top concerns (among the NEA members in the poll) like widening equity gaps and lack of SEL supports as some students drop off the radar are being taken into consideration.”

   While the actual NEA Poll Analysis noted that 78% of the participating NEA members thought that the “Lack of built-in supports & social-emotional well-being of students” was a serious or very serious problem in their respective schools, the article never used the term or acronym SEL.

[CLICK HERE for the NEA document]

   Critically, if someone had not read the actual NEA article, the Education Dive description and article might have led them to believe that the NEA was endorsing the SEL framework—not a generic collection of social-emotional supports.

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   In the middle of the continuum are publications that advocate for specific social-emotional learning frameworks because (a) they, for example, receive advertising, foundation, grant, or federal/state funding that influences this advocacy; or (b) they amass political, public, or social media attention for the same reason.

   Included here, for example, are a handful of professional education news organizations, foundations or independent thinktanks, and professional associations that publish news briefs or newsletters that appear objective, but are influenced for the reasons immediately above.

   Given their orientations and the current popularity of the term SEL, many of these groups reframe everything possible into that acronym—even though their real focus is on students’ social, emotional, and behavioral skills, functioning, and interactions.

   This can get quite confusing for the typical educator as a Harvard Graduate School of Education research group recently identified 40 different SEL frameworks.

   Representing this state of confusion, they stated:

Throughout its history, the field of social and emotional learning (SEL) has been defined or characterized in a variety of ways. In some respects, the term SEL serves as an umbrella for many subfields with which many educators, researchers, and policy-makers are familiar (e.g., bullying prevention, civic and character education and development, conflict resolution, social skills training, life skills, “soft” or “non-cognitive” skills, 21st century skills). However, discussion of this broad non-academic domain lacks clarity about what we mean and is beset by dilemmas about how best to measure and promote skills in this area. Underlying this challenge, and in some ways compounding it, is the fact that the field more generally is structured around a large number of organizational systems or frameworks that often use different or even conflicting terminology to talk about a similar set of skills.

   And yet often, the professional education news organizations, foundations or independent thinktanks, and professional associations that publish “new stories” that fit “their” conceptualization of “SEL” rarely:

  • Discuss the complexity and confusion around this term;
  • Disclose their financial supporters; or
  • Describe the potential conflicts of interest around their work, or the fact that their goal is to guide readers toward their beliefs, or toward related publications that are being sold to generate profits.

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   At the opposite end of the continuum are publications that knowingly promote or lead readers to (a) inaccurate conclusions; or (b) sensationalized or panic-driven emotions and decisions; and/or that encourage or reinforce (c) stereotypes, biases, or clinically perilous implications.

   For unsuspecting readers who trust these publications and/or who do not have the time or capacity to “fact check,” these conclusions, emotions, or stereotypes can lead to unfortunate or inappropriate decisions or actions that can harm students and/or delay the delivery of appropriate services, supports, programs, or interventions.

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   But ultimately, the issue here is not the publishers, associations, organizations, or publications. Clearly, the First Amendment allows these publications, and a “public relations battle” with these groups is futile.

   The issue is the potential harm done to students, staff, and schools, and that educators must be vigilant for the misleading or biased publications, and must avoid their service delivery traps.

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Why is Education Week Sensationalizing the Pandemic’s Effects on Students ?

   So how did the topic for this Blog message originate?

   Last week (May 6, 2020), Dr. Kathleen Minke, a school psychologist and Executive Director of the National Association of School Psychologists, wrote a piece for Education Week.

[CLICK HERE for the EdWeek article]

   The substance and content in the article was excellent as it encouraged readers to recognize that school psychologists are available to help:

  • Teachers adapt to virtual instruction, the delivery of services to students with disabilities, and ways to provide emotional support to students and their families;
  • Parents and guardians create the best “home and school” schedules, structures, and settings to facilitate students’ academic progress and physical and emotional well-being;
  • Students find the informal and formal supports they need when, for example, experiencing stress, loss, abuse, panic, or feelings of self-harm; and
  • Schools get ready to evaluate the presence of students’ general and pandemic-specific social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges when they return to school, and to address their root causes through strategic or intensive interventions.

   At the end of the article, Dr. Minke suggested that Districts must consciously address the psychological and emotional needs of both students and staff when planning the post-pandemic re-opening of their schools.

   Specifically, she recommended the following steps:

Develop a long-term recovery plan. Do not rely on individual building principals or school psychologists to create and implement support plans. District leadership is needed to ensure that a multitiered system of support addressing both academic skills and emotional and behavioral health is available to all students and adults in each building.

Assess, don’t assume. All schools will face challenges, but they won’t be the same challenges. Structured needs assessments that identify the specific difficulties that students and staff face will guide intervention. Prepare comprehensive universal supports and methods to identify those who require more intensive interventions. The assessment process should be ongoing, recognizing that some students (and adults) will seem fine upon return to school only to demonstrate setbacks a few months into recovery.

Develop a resource map. Identify qualified mental- and behavioral-health service providers in each school and make sure their jobs are structured such that they have time to devote to such services. School psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers should be on the front lines of this work. Identify gaps in needed services and seek community supports to fill those gaps. Recognize that community service providers will be experiencing increased demand and may not be as available as they were before the pandemic. Also, many families may have lost health insurance and will find it difficult to bear the cost of treatment outside of school.

Provide professional development and emotional care for adults. Educators will be facing enormous responsibility to recognize signs of anxiety, depression, and trauma in their students. They also will be managing ongoing challenges in their own families. Districts should provide professional development that teaches trauma-informed practices and a robust protocol for identifying and supporting students in need. Consider how to build flexibility and support into the workday so that educators can engage in effective self-care.

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   So where’s the problem?

   The “problem” is the title of the piece:

The Pandemic Is Causing Widespread Emotional Trauma. Schools Must Be Ready to Help

   This title is sensationalized and irresponsible.

   This is because no one knows how many students have actually been traumatized by the pandemic.

   My points:

  • First of all: I know of no schools in this country where students—at this point in time—have been formally and/or accurately evaluated to validate the clinical presence of emotional trauma.
  • Second: Without these assessments—and a definition of “widespread”—no school psychologist that I know would characterize the current needs of our students as “widespread.”
  • Third: Any assessment would need to review a student’s pre-existing social, emotional, and behavioral history and status, include observations and interviews, and involve multiple assessment instruments to “rule out” or “weigh in” any independent, comorbid, or combined physical, medical, or emotional factors or conditions related to the pandemic.
  • Fourth: While a student might be traumatized by the pandemic itself (for example, due to an obsessive fear of getting sick), it is more likely that any confirmed traumas will be due to the effects of circumstances triggered by the pandemic.

Examples of such effects might include the death of a parent, domestic violence, physical abuse, witnessing illegal drug use, or the exacerbation of a pre-existing mental health condition due to social isolation.

  • Finally: All of the principles and actions within the steps above are essential to determine (a) the actual presence of a student’s social, emotional, or behavioral concerns; (b) the root causes of any needs, and the depth, breadth, and severity of their impact; and (c) whether the needs can be successfully addressed by teachers as part of a whole-class intervention, or whether they require more specialized small group or individual interventions delivered by counselors, social workers, or school psychologists.

_ _ _ _ _

   Critically, the Education Week title increases the risk that educators will “pathologize” the emotional impact of how their students lived, learned, socialized, and survived their pandemic stay-at-home time and circumstances.

   And in this “frame of pathology,” it is likely that far too many students will be seen as being ill, having deficits, needing sympathy, or requiring “therapeutic” services “from the experts” than will actually be the case.

   Understand me clearly: When students have an objectively validated need for strategic or intensive clinical services—based on sound, multi-disciplinary assessments (see above), they should receive those services.

   But, as a school psychologist, understand that we need to immediately create and then sustain the positive, prosocial, relationship-driven school and classroom settings for all students on the first day that schools re-open. This should be a prerequisite to the multi-tiered, multi-disciplinary assessments that also should be available.

   Said a different way: Schools will need to consciously plan and help all students—from preschool through high school—to emotionally re-connect individually, socially, academically, within their peer and grade-level groups, and as a study body when they re-open.

   Schools need to approach their re-opening from a strengths-based perspective.

   Moreover, they need to understand that, when they return to school, students will exhibit different levels of social, emotional, and behavioral variability, and that this is normal and expectedWe don't need to be giving them messages that they are somehow "emotionally broken."

   And so, our guiding planning templates and protocols should be similar to those used when students return to school from a natural disaster, a national or local tragedy, or a significantly stressful in-school event.

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   Lest you think that the critique above was aimed at my good colleague Dr. Minke, know that I e-mailed her earlier this week about the concerns expressed. Moreover, I directly asked her where the headline in question originated.

   Her e-mail back stated:

Hi, Howie. I had nothing to do with either headline. Both were created by Ed Week. The point of the piece was preparation...for whatever a particular school and district might be facing. My current favorite metaphor from the online world: We are all in the same storm but we are not in the same boat. Kathy

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   There is an old adage in the media business: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

   This is not the time for the media to use fear, sensationalism, or emotional triggers to get attention, satisfy their funders or benefactors, or implicitly or explicitly “sell” their beliefs or orientations.

   This is the time for common sense, empathy, objectivity, facts, and data-based decision-making.

   We are all experiencing different social, emotional, and behavioral reactions and responses to the current pandemic and how it has affected our lives. We, as adults, understand what is happening far better than our children and adolescents

   Let’s act as leaders, healers, and caring adults as we support our students through these times.

   Let’s understand and build on their existing and emerging strengths.

   Let’s "provide great benefits" and “do no harm” as we prepare to welcome our students back to school. . . socially, emotionally, behaviorally, as well as academically.

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   I appreciate, as always, the time that you invest in reading these Blogs, and your dedication to your students, your colleagues, and the educational process—especially in the face of the challenges we all have recently experienced.

   Please feel free to send me your thoughts and questions. 

   And please know that—even during this time when most schools are closed for the rest of the year—I continue to be available to you through Zoom calls. . . if and when you need me. Contact me at any time.